Portrait

A cup of lemongrass tea with the artistic director of Adelaide’s TARNANTHI Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. By Claire G. Coleman.

Artistic director Nici Cumpston

There are many beautiful buildings on North Terrace, Adelaide, home to the edifices of stone where the activities of colonial government were once performed. In the single long block resides the State Library, the museum, the art gallery and two university campuses; the tightest grouping of cultural institutions I have seen. North Terrace projects a magnetism, a gravity.

I have known Nici Cumpston for about three years; we met at the inaugural TARNANTHI Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, in Adelaide, back in 2015, while I was still working on the draft of what was to become my debut novel. I was surprised, at first, by how friendly, quiet and softly spoken she was, considering what she had achieved.

The cafe at the Art Gallery of South Australia, by contrast, is noisy; there’s a school group when I arrive, and the walls and hard floor seem to have been purpose built to throw sound. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful place, a whole side of the building is glass, looking out to the gardens, and there’s art to rest my eyes on in whichever direction I look. I like that room, I have been there many times and it holds great memories. Memories of TARNANTHI.

Nici is flustered and tired when she arrives at the cafe but her smile is characteristically bright; it annexes her entire face when she sits down for a cuppa. I don’t know how she found the time. The TARNANTHI Art Fair is on this weekend at the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute and so is the feature exhibition, John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new, of which Nici is one of the co-curators. The Art Gallery of South Australia collaborated with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and Maningrida Arts and Culture to present the exhibition.

A poster – taller than I am – of John Mawurndjul’s handsome face advertises the exhibition from the back wall of the information counter. His hair is a puff of white. I hope I can pull off grey with that aplomb when it inevitably spreads over my head.

Nici is a Barkindji woman whose family comes from the Darling River region of New South Wales. Her people are “culturally affiliated with the river Murray” all the way to “the mouth of the river”. Her great-grandfather was an Afghan cameleer who also delivered the mail out of Broken Hill; her great-grandmother was Barkindji; her father’s side are English. She is a successful photographic artist but as a curator and artistic director she has shown extraordinary power and vision. The TARNANTHI Festival, of which she is artistic director, is a breathtaking event, which alternately stages an expansive citywide festival in one year and a focus exhibition the next. On both years there’s an annual art fair. It’s almost certainly the biggest festival of its kind in the country.

In the language of the Kaurna people, the traditional owners of the Adelaide plains, tarnanthi means to come forth or appear – like the first emergence of light before the sun appears, signifying a new beginning. TARNANTHI is an opportunity for Indigenous artists to be ambitious, “supporting them financially and linking them up with artists who provide support to enable them to go that little bit further”. Drawing on relationships “that are built upon over a long period of time”, the gallery has seen “really ambitious projects realised” by “giving the artists a chance to think big”.

This is the year of the feature exhibition, as if a two-yearly is not enough work already, and Nici is furiously planning for the citywide extravaganza next year. She wants it to be even bigger than last time – I remember last year’s as huge – and says there are “many more organisations that want to be involved next year”. The screen of her phone keeps flashing with notifications – distracting, until she turns it face down.

I ask if her curation work on TARNANTHI has clashed with her practice as an artist. She answers, “Yep”, and her laugh says, “Well, duh.” I laugh, too, at my stupid question. However, Nici feels “compelled” to create her own work and says her practices of art and of curation “go hand in hand”, each of them teaching skills and ways of thinking that help with the other.

Having experienced both her art and her curation, I can see how each feeds the other. Her artistic sensibilities drive how she hangs the work of others, her curation informs her eye in the practice of her art.

Mid-conversation, Nici unexpectedly runs off – a priceless work of Aboriginal art is moving past the cafe in the hands of a couple of staff and she, as the head curator of Indigenous art, really does need to know where it’s going. She returns to our conversation and her cup of lemongrass and ginger tea and tells me, ultimately, it’s the art and the artists, giving them the support they need, that is the most important thing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 27, 2018 as "A river runs through her". Subscribe here.

Claire G. Coleman
is a Noongar author whose debut novel Terra Nullius has been long-listed for the 2018 Stella Prize.